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  • prequel

    "Top blog/Renato Obeid's World/Today's pick: This rambling weblog is worth reading not so much for its satirical posts but more for its insight into the minutiae of life in Lebanon, including the etiquette of road accidents and how to hire a taxi.” -Jane Perrone, The Guardian

    Sunday, March 07, 2004  
    ‘’The lights are much brighter there…You can forget all your troubles; forget all your cares and go downtown –things will be great when you’re downtown’’
    -Petula Clark, Downtown

    Went to a Floridaesque pub quiz at Paddy's in downtown Beirut – at the end of the quiz we were declared the winners only to be stripped of our title soon after when Pub Quiz Officials announced that the runners-up had incorrectly tallied their scores and were in fact the actual winners.
    They – American teachers as far as I could fathom – were very gracious about it and later gave my team-mates their prizes.
    The downtown enclave is in what was the pre-war heart of Beirut – Martyrs Square and the adjoining souks and streets - that became the border between Muslim West Beirut and Christian East Beirut and thus the frontline for the various factions during the war and was subsequently destroyed.
    When I first arrived in 1991 I called it "Little Hiroshima" such was the extent of the destruction.
    The only unaffected part was the virtually intact Bank Street and Parliament - which tells you something about the war and the interests of those fighting it.
    Most of what was not destroyed in the fighting was later destroyed by the controversial government/private sector (the two are virtually indistinguishable in Lebanon) company, Solidere, who requisitioned and leveled most of it – finishing off what the war couldn’t – including a lot of irreplaceable heritage buildings that could and should have been restored.
    We should all be thankful that Solidere, the private sector/government company (the two are indistinguishable in Lebanon) that was especially created for that reconstruction, hasn’t got their hands on the Baalbeck ruins yet.
    I can just imagine them totally leveling the ancient ruins and rebuilding new ancient ruins in their place.
    Rising from the ashes like the legendary Phoenix that derived its name from the ancient people who first dwelt here, the Phoenicians, downtown Beirut is now a teeming maze of shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, offices and government buildings – equal, if not superior, to anything any world city has to offer.
    Despite all this I personally remain a Hamraphile – preferring old, earthy now almost deserted Hamra (which became the proxy heart of Beirut during the war) to beautiful, fashionable but, like most tourist precincts, artificial and soulless downtown.
    Sure it looks good but so does Las Vegas – they were both built by the mafia on human suffering and misery.Downtown is also a Potemkin Village, a "display home" for impressing and attracting international companies, tourists and governments (a friend of mine who lives in the area, sees workmen scrubbing the street signs etc in the morning) and their money built at the expense of ordinary Lebanese living outside the "walls" of this Forbidden City (prohibitive prices and an elitist atmosphere make it out of bounds to most Lebanese) who have yet to find a way to eat the tarmac, concrete and marble their government favors over bread and butter.
    Downtown also serves a useful domestic purpose.
    It acts as a sort of sop to some of the naïve masses who’s mantra is ‘’he (Hariri) built a country’’ when in actual fact all he built was a couple of streets (downtown) but these people can’t see the forest for the downtown trees.
    Although the architecture and the prices are grand, it is ironic and paradoxical that it is a magnet for the masses – like most places around the world considered “posh” by the masses tend to attract people who belong to an all-together different milieu, flocking there as a form of escapism and out of the demotic belief that merely being in such places makes you somewhat “posh” yourself by very association.
    Being on the outside looking in on that kind of society, the masses can only imagine what such lives are like and are thus susceptible to the misconception that ostentation means wealth whereas most “posh” people don’t actually live like that caricature.
    A good example of this is the commoners who get outrageously dressed up, hire a limo and go to some fancy place for their special occasions.
    Their false consciousness tells them that this is the good life and that this is how to commemorate something, their hearts tell them that they’d rather be at the pub.I think that people may have been a lot happier in the old days when people “knew their place” and didn’t torture and torment themselves thus.
    Downtown – its default name – is too generic a name for this Taj Mahal and doesn’t honor the glory of the "emperor" who built it for that purpose (it hasnt hurt his bank balance either).
    What then to call the capital of the capital?
    I think we need not create a totally new name; we can borrow the name of the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, and adapt it – merely changing two of the vowels (the later two) and replacing them with another vowel.
    See what I mean?

    Most of the construction/reconstruction happened in Beirut, literally cementing pre-existing Lebanese demographics – the Sunnis get the coastal cities, the Shiites are shoved into the hinterland and some slums around Beirut and the Maronites are perched atop the mountains (their old friends) as if we were goats or something.
    They build Disneyland on the Mediterranean in Beirut and just stick a couple of roads and pipes through the rest of the country.

    Downtown is a very un-Lebanese area in that there appear to be no pharmacies in the entire precinct.
    There’s a gay pharmacy (a vitamin store) but there’s no actual pharmacy.

    1:25 pm

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